Whether good or bad, it’s not uncommon to hear a church’s name in the nightly news. These can stem from volunteer and fundraising efforts to topics not so user-friendly. A sad example of this is sexual abuse. A male volunteer Sunday School teacher in his 30’s inappropriately touched two girls who were 10 and 12 years old. Reference checks before the Sunday School teacher started indicated that he was not eligible for employment at two previous places, but the church hired him anyway. He pled guilty to criminal charges, and a civil claim was brought against the church for negligent selection and supervision shortly thereafter.
Tragic incidents such as this emphasize the vital importance of screening the employees and volunteers who work with the children and special needs adults in your congregation. While we often think of “screening” as analogous to running a criminal background check, screening is a broader concept that includes several additional elements.
First, consider having prospective workers and volunteers complete an application form that elicits information about their work and volunteer history, prior experience with children and references.
For volunteers, consider instituting a waiting period, in which the individual is required to be involved in the life of the congregation for at least six months before being allowed to work in a trusted position with children. This period of time can serve as a deterrent to those seeking quick and easy access to children, while also allowing the church time to get to know the individual and evaluate their suitability for working with minors.
Next, consider contacting the references listed on the application and document those communications. Ideally, these will be institutional references where the individual has worked or volunteered with children in the past, rather than personal or family references.
Lastly, consider utilizing criminal background checks. Background checks serve at least three purposes:
- Serves as a deterrent to sexual predators or others with significant criminal histories who might otherwise attempt to access children or vulnerable adults.
- Reveals criminal convictions in a persona’s past that might not be uncovered any other way.
- Demonstrates initiative in selecting the persons who will be placed in a position of trust within your organization.
Background checks and reference checks go hand-in-hand in revealing information about the prospective worker. For example, an individual with a clean criminal record who was removed from a position at another organization due to boundary issues would not be identified through the background check process alone. Likewise, an individual with multiple criminal convictions who had performed admirably at another organization would not be detected by a reference check alone.
Religious organizations should exercise great caution in giving a second chance to individuals with past incidents of misconduct or other inappropriate behavior. While the concepts of forgiveness and redemption may resonate with church leaders, a subsequent incident by the individual involving a child would not only cause tremendous harm to the victim but would also have devastating consequences for the organization given its knowledge of the previous bad acts.